At the beginning of the season, nobody expected much from Arizona State. The Sun Devils were picked to finish fifth in the PAC-12 South, and the first game looked less than promising. But now, seven weeks later, Todd Graham has led his team to unexpected victories over Oregon, Washington and Utah, and the hot seat has turned into a hot streak.
The turn around by this Todd Graham team is remarkable at this point, and if they keep progressing, there is no reason this team can’t win the PAC-12 South.
Just how have the Devils been able to come out victorious? Well, the simple and easy answer is defense, but there’s much more specific details that must be acknowledged.
The defense has not just improved. It’s almost as if it is a whole different group of players that stepped out on the field following the bye week. The unit as a whole, under the direction of Phil Bennett, is heading in an upward direction compared to last year. Are the averages for the defense spectacular? No, but they are much-improved over past weeks.
In fact, they are much-improved since years past. In 2015, the defense allowed 24 passing plays for 40 or more yards. That was the most in the FBS. In 2016, they allowed 22 passing plays for 40 or more yards. That was the second most in the FBS. However, this season so far they’ve only allowed three, which is a night and day difference from years past.
Additionally, the Sun Devils have improved immensely when it comes to tackling. In years past, Arizona State players struggled to wrap players up and bring them to the ground. They would try to knock players over rather than dragging them down. This year, they’ve done a much better job of wrapping up and stopping them from forward progress.
Specifically, Christian Sam and DJ Calhoun’s presence on the field have been huge difference makers. Sam is ranked seventh in the FBS for solo tackles, and Calhoun is ranked 16th.
In the game against Utah, Arizona State’s defense also had four interceptions. That is double the amount they had in the first six games alone. The last time Arizona State had four interceptions in a game was when they played Washington State in 2014.
Opposing quarterbacks have felt the heat from Arizona State’s defense. Quarterback pressure is nothing out of the ordinary for Sun Devil defense, but when Koron Crump went down with an injury, there was questions swirling around who would step up. However, the team has made adjustments and was still able sack the quarterback.
Against Washington, the defense sacked Jake Browning five times. Tashon Smallwood, JoJo Wicker, Alani Latu, Renell Wren, and George Lea all were able to get to Browning, along with Sam and Calhoun.
Against Utah, the defense sacked Tyler Huntley twice, one coming from Calhoun and the other from Wicker.
Also, coverage by the secondary has shown improvement. Gone are the days where coverage was blown on big plays and the opponents are able to move the chains for a first down.
Arizona State has now held both opponents to only a combined total of 17 points, which is far less than the average amount of points they were giving up per game in the first five match-ups of the season.
The Sun Devils are now 18-0 during the Todd Graham era when holding opponents to under 20 points.
There also has been an extreme amount of discipline shown by these players, both offensively and defensively. ASU is first in the FBS for fewest penalties per game, averaging only 3.14 penalties per game.
The team that at one point had a 2-3 record, and a bleak outlook on the future now has a completely different feeling. After huge back to back victories, the Sun Devils are heading into another big game at home on Saturday. Arizona State will host the University of Southern California for their homecoming game as they look to continue the hot streak.
The upcoming game against USC is likely going to be one of the hardest remaining games for the Sun Devils this season, as the rest of their schedule includes Colorado(4-4), UCLA(4-3), Oregon State(1-6), and Arizona(5-2). The stripe-out themed game is set to kick-off on ESPN at 7:45 p.m.